Thursday, September 14, 2017

Fresh-faced Kangaroos' World Cup backline

On Tuesday night at the Rugby League Players’ Association awards Jarryd Hayne declared he would be forgoing the opportunity to be selected in the Australian squad for the Rugby League World Cup and electing to represent his heritage of Fiji. 

The consummate fullback who first played with Fiji at the 2008 World Cup held in Australia, before then representing Australia at the 2013 tournament held in England and Wales, said the time has come to let the new kids on the block step forth. 

The Australian Kangaroos  Image: RLWC2017

“It’s pretty obvious with the amount of talent and the amount of depth they’ve got,” Hayne told News Sydney.

“I’m pushing 29 now, so I’m a bit older. 

"These young guys definitely deserve their spot.”

While Hayne has chosen to go back to the future in a typically enigmatic decision, he has raised a debatable point about just who Mal Meninga will choose to select in his Kangaroos’ squad for the 15th edition of the historic tournament. 

In particular, who he will blood in some of the prized positions across the Australian backline. 

Meninga, a coach known for his loyalty to his incumbent players, has indicated in the past that he views the green and gold jersey as one that should be filled by the best player available, regardless of their age.

 Will Meninga stay loyal to Josh Dugan? Photo: Sitthixay Ditthavong 

Given the strength built from the Queensland dynasty which Mal oversaw and the combinations built at the Melbourne Storm, you can assume Billy Slater will likely fill the fullback position with Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk to play hooker, and halfback, respectively. 

Indeed, you could likely say Dane Gagai and Will Chambers are almost certain starters.

But with Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston unavailable for the tournament through injury, many questions remain about the rest of the backs. 

On the advice of Jarryd Hayne, here’s a remarkably skilful crop of youngsters who could fill some of the vacant spots in the back five positions come October in a proposed alternative line-up.

Fullback: Tom Trbojevic

Trbojevic’s rise into first grade has been well-beyond the expectations of any 20-year-old in the game. After debuting on the wing in 2015 at just age 18, the Manly junior has filled the void left by Brett Stewart and given us a ‘fresh prince of Brookvale’ with his sensational style of play. 

The dynamic and silky ball runner has never looked out of place on an NRL field and provides a tremendous work ethic from the back for his club side. Yet to play any representative football, Trobjevic has racked up 55 appearances for Manly over the last three years and looks more than ready to make the jump.

An equally as prolific try-scorer as the first prince of Brookie – Brett Stewart – Trobjevic already has 30 tries to his name and would provide incredibly back-up for Slater throughout the six-week competition. 

Wing: Valentine Holmes

Holmes was given the opportunity to play State of Origin football this year by Kevin Walters and he didn’t disappoint, scoring on debut and finishing the series with a hat-trick in the deciding fixture.

Earlier in the year Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga again handed him a national jersey following his successful Four Nation’s tour last season and the Cronulla Sharks' premiership win.

The fact that he represented Australia before he had played Origin given it’s such a rare occurrence in today’s game is enough for Holmes’ not-so-hot club form to be overlooked. Having already played in the national side and now sure to become a permanent presence in the Maroons squad, Holmes is a must for this alternative line-up at the ripe age of just 22. 

Centre: James Roberts 

One of the game’s most lethal attacking weapons, James Roberts' national career should begin at the RLWC in 2017. How he hasn’t played any rep football outside of the indigenous game and a sole City-Origin appearance in 2015 is bemusing. 

While critics will lament his defensive deficiencies, the 24-year-old Brisbane centre is a line-crosser Meninga can no longer ignore. Should the Brisbane Broncos go deep into the NRL Finals, it will likely mean Roberts has plastered his name across the try-scorers’ list.

And while in the past Roberts may have crossed the line off the field, there is no man who could command his trust more than Meninga.

With 17 tries for the Broncos in 2017 from 24 starts, and 58 in a 101-game career so far, Roberts has earned his place. 

Centre: Latrell Mitchell 

Having almost instantly been compared to one of the best centres to ever play the game in Greg Inglis when he came onto the scene in 2016, Latrell Mitchell was probably always going to have a dip in his form after such a scintillating debut season. 

But the mid-year shift back to reserve grade and trip up the F3 to play with the Wyong Roos didn’t dent the 20-year-old desire. In fact, it probably made him even hungrier, as the naturally-gifted Taree-product has score as many tries in his second season as he did his first – 14. He has even done it in two less games this time round.

As the youngest player in the backline of youth, Mitchell will need plenty of support should he enter the Kangaroos’ set-up but he will certainly not look out of place. He dusts off the defenders of any team that comes his way and shifts past the men many years his senior like they’re static pieces of training equipment.


Wing: Corey Oates

While the form of Dane Gagai in the Origin arena makes him impossible to ignore for selection, these back five have been selected on the premise of youth and at 26, Gagai has just slipped out of consideration. But in his place comes the Broncos’ teetering tower of destruction. 

A rangy winger polar opposite to the icons who previously adorned the edges for Brisbane, Oates has lit-up Suncorp Stadium since 2013, scoring 59 tries in 95 NRL games. If that resume doesn’t scream that his potency to make opposition teams pay, I’m not sure we’re selecting teams the correct way. Even in his four games for Queensland, Oates has nabbed two tries. Impressive, given the traditionally low-scoring affairs.

One element Oates brings different to his fellow players, and one that will be well-needed against potential oppositions, is his height. At six-foot, four inches tall, the 22-year-old will be able to match it with the likes of some of his counterparts, including the athletic Fijian Suliasi Vunivalu.  

The potentially raw and new Kangaroos' line-up.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Moylan move could dent Panthers revival

The surprising suggestion that Penrith skipper Matt Moylan could be on the way out of the Panthers organisation has the potential to leave the club’s revival with tainted and irreversible damage.

Make no mistake, Matt Moylan is the pin-up boy of the Penrith Panthers. 

He’s talented, has football nous and is a local prodigy. He plays a key position on the field, and is marketable, sleek and has the model looks off it.

PRODIGAL: Matt Moylan

If you rewind to Gus Gould’s arrival back at the Nepean in 2011, you’ll remember the gutting and broomstick he put through the club’s roster. You’ll remember the overhaul of the business, the bold statements about being the country’s most recognisable sports brand, and the now infamous five-year plan.

While you might question many of Gus’ claims and hang the plans out to dry, it is undeniable that the influence of Gould has almost single-handedly turned a floundering franchise into an NRL powerhouse.

Just this week, the club put out a statement detailing how every one of their sides had made the finals for only the fourth time in the club’s 50-plus year history. And in a first, they have achieved for a second consecutive year.  

Gould’s revolution was kick-started in 2012 when he brought in Ivan Cleary and began the turnaround.

Almost parallel to the new era was the emergence of Baulkham Hills-born Matt Moylan. 

A local junior who was first off what would turn into a conveyer-belt of NRL players produced from the local Penrith district.

Bryce Cartwright and Matt Moylan have been the leading figures in Penrith's impressive junior-to-NRL transmission rate. 

At fullback, Moylan played in arguably the most prodigious position on the field outside of the traditional owner of rugby league sides, the halfback.  

His playing talents quickly shone through; he began to find his feet in the media appearing on The Footy Show as a regular; and his quick-wit, humour and good looks would have had marketing guru’s rubbing their hands together.

He fitted in perfectly to the commercial and operational redesign of the Panthers at-large. So much so, in 2016 he was handed the club’s captaincy.

It was a valiant decision, and with a squad so young it had the potential to work.

Without drawing a comparison too wild, Moylan has a tinge of former Liverpool footballer Steven Gerrard about him. And so does his situation.

Local junior, poster boy, all the talent in the world, the ability to influence others through his own actions.

POSTER BOY: Moylan appears to have it all. 

But what he hasn’t fully captured yet is the persistence of effort, a resilience. 

In the age of modern-day footballers, it’s probably no surprise. But will this be the career-defining learning curve for Moylan, or the signal of the end of his time at Penrith?

In 2015, Gus Gould made an eerily similar and surprising decision to sack then Panthers coach Ivan Cleary and bring in Anthony Griffin.  

While the merits of that decision are a debate for another article, Moylan was still able to continue his rise under new coach Griffin.

He made the New South Wales side, Australian squad and was instrumental in the club’s run into the finals last season.

All while wearing the captain’s metaphorical armband. So it’s hard to work out wear it’s all gone wrong.

MIXED FORM: Penrith's form this year has been indifferent, but they've made the finals. 

Indeed, maybe both parties have reasons for wanting a change.

It Moylan is unhappy and dismayed with his current predicament, maybe a move would be best the best thing for him. A shift away from the prodigal son paradigm.

Maybe the Panthers have realised they don’t have the full deck of cards required to achieve their goal of winning another premiership and see the departure of Moylan as a way of securing what or who they need.

Like the loss of Cleary, perhaps to get where you want to go, you don’t always arrive with those who you thought you would.

But there would be a real sense of disenchantment if Matt Moylan wasn’t involved in completing Penrith’s revival.

He’s been at the front of it, at the back of it, and in the thick of it.

Chronologically, in a positional sense, and in terms of the operation respectively. 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Panthers on fire, but Raiders coming home hot

WITH three games left to play in the NRL regular season and just six points separating the sides between fourth and tenth, the run into the finals is smothered in scenario-riddled matches.

Perhaps none more so than the match-up between the Canberra Raiders and Penrith Panthers this Sunday at GIO Stadium.

Canberra must win every game remaining to make the 2017 Finals.

Penrith have notched half-a-dozen straight victories and are flying high again, but even more intriguingly, Canberra, who appeared destined to be 2017’s biggest flops, have found a glimmer of life again on the back of three-straight wins.

Both teams enjoyed a stellar, out-coming year in 2016, which led to the league world’s cumulative preseason prediction that they would challenge for this season’s title.

However, for indifferent reasons, neither side has kicked on from last season’s red-hot form.

Penrith began this season with just two wins from the opening nine rounds. By anyone’s assessment it was a disaster given how they had captured our attention just six months earlier.

The start might have been a shock, but their next four wins in the middle of the season would prove to be crucial. Essential, even.

They spent five games away from Pepper Stadium during that period and after losing two on the trot to the Cowboys and South Sydney, they returned to their spiritual home and haven’t lost a game since.

Six games, six wins. Five at Pepper Stadium.

Three of their best: Nathan Cleary, Josh Mansour and Reagan Campbell-Gillard.

They have the undisputed sensation of the season Nathan Cleary playing well beyond his years and in calculations for a representative call-up, and now their key stalwart Matt Moylan has returned from injury.

Under the guidance of Anthony Griffin, the play-making tutelage of club legend Greg Alexander and the behind the scenes advice of Phil Gould, Penrith could really give this competition a tilt if everything continues to fall into place like it has been.

While Penrith’s showing for the majority of this season has been mixed for a number of reasons, Canberra just haven’t clicked as they did in 2016.

They lost only Paul Vaughn and Edrick Lee in the offseason and kept virtually their entire line-up intact. They unearthed a potential franchise weapon in 18-year-old Nick Cotric and in somewhat of a surprise, handed Dave Taylor a train-and-trial contract.

Trying to work out where they’ve gone wrong this season is a tricky exercise, but identifying what went well for them in 2016 is an easy task.

The Raiders played a formidable and fear-invoking style of footy which allowed their attacking brilliance to shine as they won 13 from their last 15 games.

Comradery amongst the squad in the isolated nation’s capital under Ricky Stuart brought them together and momentum took them to within a dropped pass of the Grand Final.

Every team they faced was weary of playing the re-built Green Machine.

Even Paul Gallen was in tears of joy after the Sharks got out of GIO Stadium with a qualifying final win.

Perhaps the most endearing complement to Canberra was that only their own error prevented them from knocking off Melbourne in the preliminary final at the ‘Graveyard’ of AAMI Park.

It’s why should they win on Sunday afternoon, they must be considered a danger to any team that encounters them on their run into the finals series. That includes the Storm at AAMI Park in the final round of the season.

They might have left their run very, very late, but make no mistake, Canberra are coming home hot.

If they can build the confidence and find the spark that inspired their run last season, the Raiders are capable of beating anyone on their day.

Blake Austin found form against the Warriors last week, and will need to improve again on Sunday.

What a tantalising prospect the 2017 NRL Finals could be if the Green Machine make the cut.

It would only be a scrape-in eighth place finish, but goodness scarious, look out whoever runs fifth.
And for the Panthers, who knows what awaits for them.

A club still in a development phase, but well capable of going all the way should they play to their potential.

In last year’s semi-final Penrith went to Canberra and failed to match the Raiders, going down 22-12.

That match put them out of the finals series and they will be eager to revenge the loss in this Sunday’s blockbuster clash.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Why Gus Gould must finally answer Blues SOS

Andrew Johns was peppered with questions from Paul Vautin on Wednesday night during the post-match review about coaching New South Wales, but Vautin asked the wrong man on the panel.

He should have directed the questioning at Phil Gould. 

IT'S TIME: No coach would have more influence for embattled NSW than Gould.

Johns, a more than creditable more coaching option for the Blues, refused to answer one-way or another about whether he would take on the representative role.

Citing the need to not have the pressure that coaching could bring to his life, Johns would no doubt offer an irresistible passion and thirst to overthrow the now historic Maroons side. 

Considering his lack of head-coaching experience is a valid thought line, but he’s expertise and status in the game would far outweigh any need for a resume of credentials. 

Perhaps the far-better option is to consider hauling NSW’s most experienced and successful Origin coach in the game’s history out of his Penrith seclude.

Gould has transformed the Panthers into a formidable force in the National Rugby League during his time as General Manager, both on and off the field. 

He has pushed club favourites out the door, recruited numerous players to the club, signed many of the western-Sydney league nurseries’ talents to long-term deals, constructed one of the best sport’s headquarters in Australia and enabled the complete turnaround of one the league’s most viable clubs. 

While ‘Gus’ has been busy working on his five-year plan in his office-chair and boardroom role for quite some time, along with his extensive media commitments, he has basically not been involved in coaching since his last stint with NSW ended in 2004. 

WINNER: Gould is the most successful Blues coach ever.

Now, as Laurie Daley would attest, coaching a State of Origin side is not a year-round commitment.

Yes, you have to watch players throughout the NRL season to keep track of the moments and form, but it hardly consumes your life.

As one of the best minds in Rugby League, Gould could probably pick his side off the top of his head without having watched as little as a minute of a season. 

The biggest effect Gould would have on the players of today is the size of his aura and presence.

Players would cease to talk when he walked in a room. The entire squad would respond to his status and ability as a coach. No-one would be caught putting in half-arse efforts. 

It would be no non-sense, 100 per cent commitment from Gould that would categorically bring out the best in each and every individual. 

Before NSW broke the drought in 2014, Gould sat on the channel 9 panel and was asked similar questions to Johns. He refused to step in and save the Blues.

If Andrew Johns is feeling ‘sick’ after watching the Blues lose another series, I would love to know Gus Gould’s true inner-opinion. 

Blatchy’s Blues are bleeding. The state is embarrassed. Players’ confidence has been shot.

Eleven QLD series wins from the last 12 attempts


One NSW series win in the past 12 years

It’s time to answer the call, Gus.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Two coaches, two captains, one correct call.

As the start of the 2017 NRL season loomed, Stephen Kearney made a left-field call to select Roger Tuivasa-Sheck as captain of the New Zealand Warriors. 

Warriors coach Stephen Kearney & Sea Eagles coach Trent Barrett.

The 23-year-old was returning from a season-ending ACL reconstruction when Kearney made the preseason selection, and was virtually a newcomer to the Warriors first-grade side – having only played seven games in 2016.

His promotion to leader of the code’s biggest underachievers and highly-maligned side, brought surprisingly little response from rugby league commentators given the context of the selection.

Simon Mannering had held the role for five years from 2010-15, before handing it over to former Melbourne Storm stalwart Ryan Hoffman in 2016.

Hoffman, having come out of the Craig Bellamy-run system at the Storm, tried with little avail to lift the standards and discipline within the heavily kiwi-fielded team.

Their disappointing end to the 2016 season – which they played without Tuivasa-Sheck – culminated in the sacking of coach Andrew McFadden. Bizarrely, he was kept on as an assistant coach to relearn the ropes under a more experienced campaigner.

So when Stephen Kearney was brought in to elicit the best from the flegding New Zealand franchise, he was faced with a number of possibilities for captain selection. Kearney himself appeared to be what the Warriors’ players have always murmured they need; someone who understands the kiwi-culture.

He was the New Zealand national-side coach when he accepted the role, sacked from the Parramatta Eels after two years in his first NRL head-coaching gig, and a former assistant coach to Craig Bellamy at the Storm and Wayne Bennett at the Broncos.

Kearney looked set to be taking over one of the most promising and exciting sides assembled in recent memory. An international spine including Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson, Kieran Foran and Issac Luke. Outside those four, Hoffman and Mannering remained the key veterans offering an abundance of experience and hard-working qualities.

Realistically, those six players were the ones up for selection as captain. With Foran always looking likely to spend only a year at the club, and Hoffman and Mannering having already held the role, there were three presumably left in the running.

Renowned hot-head Isaac Luke is the most-passionate Kiwi you could probably find in the national side, but his aggression can sometimes get the better of him.

That left halfback Shaun Johnson and Tuivasa-Sheck.

Johnson is the prodigiously talented half who has claimed a Golden Boot as the world’s best rugby league player, played in a grand final with the Warriors in 2011 and won his national side a Four Nations Final in 2014.

With around 120 games of NRL experience across six years, the 26-year-old halfback was situated at start of this season to be entering the peak period of his career.

He plays the main position in his side, is the Warriors highest-paid player, and has in many pundits’ eyes yet to reveal his best on a consistent basis.

The choice for Stephen Kearney should have been obvious, make Johnson captain and let the responsibility take his side to another level. It should be – his – side, as halfback and one of the most naturally-gifted players in the game, he already guides and leads the Warriors around the park.

Their game feeds and builds off Johnson.

Halfbacks Daly Cherry-Evans & Shaun Johnson.

Back in the preseason and on the other side of the ditch, rookie coach Trent Barrett was entering his second year with Manly-Warringah.

His club’s long-term captain Jamie Lyon had retired at the conclusion of 2016 and he was left with a similar choice to Kearney.

But Barrett didn’t hesitate. The choice for him, was simple. 

He handed the job to the club’s highest-paid player in Daly Cherry-Evans and put the onus on his main playmaker to take the side to the next level.

What happened was Cherry-Evans took it upon himself to lift his own personal standards, ditching an off-season to get ahead of the rest and training through the break.

Once that was achieved, the Manly half would be able to take command of – his – side and lift them to where they need to be.

The results of the Warriors and Sea Eagles situations are telling.

Image: Fox Sports

Manly sit in third position on the NRL ladder and Cherry-Evans is in career-best form. They have surprised everyone this season on the back of his performances and are in the running for a top-two finish.

The Warriors are running 10th and have been dismally poor in the majority of their 16 games this season. Johnson has yet to fire and the side are teetering on missing the finals for the sixth year in a row.

So woeful have the Warriors been, their place as a franchise within the NRL competition has even been brought into question. Possessing one of the best starting sides in the league, they have shown little fight or resolve to overcome their past failings.  

What they clearly lack is a demanding leader. A general; a ruthless commander of troops who can demand the best from his men and is in the thick of the action.

Trent Barrett went one way, Stephen Kearney went the other.

You be the judge.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Champions Get the Job Done

If anything’s to be taken out of Queensland’s triumphant win on Wednesday night by the New South Wales’ players, it’s that champions know how to get the job done. While NSW produced a 1st half of football that illuminated them as the straight-sets winner of State of Origin 2017, the Maroons did what they do best – put themselves in a position to win when it counted.

For years, Queensland have been patient during tedious games. They know that if they can be in with a shot with 20, 15 or 10 minutes to play, they’ll be able to rely on their experience, combinations and skillset to kill of the Blues.

What sets them apart however, is their will to win. They possess a determination to win every game that New South Wales have seldom been able to grasp.

WINNERS: Cameron Smith & Johnathan Thurston celebrate.

In 2014, the Blues found what Queensland have always had when they clinched their first series in a decade. Observers of game 1 this year may suggest NSW had that will to win; that togetherness; that ability to fight for every inch. But realistically, the Blues rode home on a phenomenal performance by Andrew Fifita and a dominant 80 minutes from their forward pack.   

With Mitchell Pearce seen in the sheds high-fiving his old man and celebrating a positive return to the Origin arena after leaving the field early, it’s easy to pinpoint such a moment as an indication of the Blues’ mentality they have failed to shed over the years.

This is not a Mitchell Pearce lashing, but for all intents and purposes what on earth was he celebrating? It’s a three-game series.

On Wednesday night, Queensland were gone. In the first half they were torn to shreds by a forceful Blues’ pack. While they managed to nullify Fifita’s influence, make no mistake, the Maroons were severely struggling.

Such was their disappointment and exhaustion at half-time, it was said that the mood in the dressing sheds was akin to having someone close pass-away. While Kevin Walters probably isn’t one for a rousing inspirational speech, the Maroons knew they were still close enough at 16-6 down.

Despite the long-held quartet of Smith, Cronk, Thurston and Slater being heralded as future Immortals, they were nowhere near their best during the game.

There appeared to be no fluency in their combinations, no clear guidance around the plays they procured, and no synergy amongst their communication. It could possibly be described as all four’s most-average Origin performances.

However, as champions of the game, they were still able to put their team over the line and in-front on the scoreboard. Yes, there were some beneficial and timely penalties that helped them finally find attacking position, but Queensland took the opportunities when they were there.

NSW went so far-off the beaten track in the 2nd half, you could have called for a search party.

They were able to swing the sword when it counted; hitting NSW where they weren’t expecting it.

The Blues appear to lack the genuine ability to instil the killer instinct, where Queensland are willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done.

If you look back right through the successful Origin teams, one thing you will find is a player in the 17 who is willing to do some dirty work. Someone who doesn’t care if they’re labelled ‘Public Enemy Number 1’ in the other state.

Josh McGuire is that current player for Queensland. Willing to put on cheap-shot after cheap-shot, put his hands and knees all through the ruck, sledge opposition players and just generally run amok. Look no further than his sledge following the game towards Andrew Fifita.

It’s complete arrogance, but you know what? It seems to have worked over the years. Think Sam Thaiday, Nate Myles, Shane Webcke, Carl Webb, and Justin Hodges, even Corey Parker could be thrown into that list.

The Queensland mentality figuratively shits all over the Blues, and it’s the exact reason why they’re looking at 11 series wins from 12 attempts.

Pearce' kicking game was on-point during game 2, but he was targeted by sections of the media after the loss.

While the champions will again rise to the occasion on the hallowed Suncorp Stadium’ turf for what looks to be the farewell of an Origin era, New South Wales must adopt a siege, hate, hunt and kill approach if they’re to have any chance.

Their best hope comes from their best player in game 1 – Andrew Fifita. In an interview after the match probing about what McGuire’s sledge entailed, Fifita was already looking ahead. Speaking calmly, with focus and intent, the game-breaker signalled his devotion for revenge.

"There'll be nothing better than us going up there and taking out the series on Queensland soil," he said.

New South Wales have one of the best packs seen in years and despite dictating the yardage game, there’s no-one in there willing to get their hands dirty. 

It’s why Andrew Johns’ comments about not consistently attacking Johnathan Thurston are spot-on.

Stop playing nice and get the job done.

It’s over to you, New South Wales.